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Journalism & Mass Communication Notes and Topics on Journalism

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Default Journalism Ethics and Standards

Journalism Ethics and Standards


Journalism ethics and standards include principles of ethics and of good practice to address the specific challenges faced by professional journalists. Historically and currently these principles are most widely known to journalists as their professional "code of ethics" or the "canons of journalism." The basic codes and canons commonly appear in statements drafted by both professional journalism associations and individual print, broadcast, and online news organizations.
While various existing codes have some differences, most share common elements including the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability, as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent reportage to the public.
Like many broader ethical systems, journalism ethics include the principle of "limitation of harm." This often involves the withholding of certain details from reports such as the names of minor children, crime victims' names or information not materially related to particular news reports release of which might, for example, harm someone's reputation.

Evolution and purpose of codes of journalism

The principles of good journalism are directed toward bringing the highest quality of news reporting to the public, thus fulfilling the mission of timely distribution of information in service of the public interest. To a large degree, the codes and canons evolved via observation of and response to past ethical lapses by journalists and publishers. Today, it is common for terms of employment to mandate adherence to such codes equally applicable to both staff and freelance journalists; journalists may face dismissal for ethical failures. Upholding professional standards also enhances the reputation of and trust in a news organization, which boosts the size of the audience it serves.
Journalistic codes of ethics are designed as guides through numerous difficulties, such as conflicts of interest, to assist journalists in dealing with ethical dilemmas. The codes and canons provide journalists a framework for self-monitoring and self-correction as they pursue professional assignments.

Common elements

The primary themes common to most codes of journalistic standards and ethics are the following.

Objectivity

Unequivocal separation between news and opinion. In-house editorials and opinion (Op-Ed) pieces are clearly separated from news pieces. News reporters and editorial staff are distinct.
Unequivocal separation between advertisements and news. All advertisements must be clearly identifiable as such.
Reporter must avoid conflicts of interest incentives to report a story with a given slant. This includes not taking bribes and not reporting on stories that affect the reporter's personal, economic or political interests.
Competing points of view are balanced and fairly characterized.
Persons who are the subject of adverse news stories are allowed a reasonable opportunity to respond to the adverse information before the story is published or broadcast.
Interference with reporting by any entity, including censorship, must be disclosed.

Sources


Confidentiality of anonymous sources.
Avoidance of anonymous sources when possible.
Accurate attribution of statements made by individuals or other news media.
Pictures, sound, and quotations must not be presented in a misleading context (or lack thereof). Simulations, reenactments, alterations, and artistic imaginings must be clearly labelled as such, if not avoided entirely.
Plagiarism is strongly stigmatized and in many cases illegal.
Accuracy and standards for factual reporting
Reporters are expected to be as accurate as possible given the time allotted to story preparation and the space available, and to seek reliable sources.
Events with a single eyewitness are reported with attribution. Events with two or more independent eyewitnesses may be reported as fact. Controversial facts are reported with attribution.
Independent fact-checking by another employee of the publisher is desirable
Corrections are published when errors are discovered
Defendants at trial are treated only as having "allegedly" committed crimes, until conviction, when their crimes are generally reported as fact (unless, that is, there is serious controversy about wrongful conviction).
Opinion surveys and statistical information deserve special treatment to communicate in precise terms any conclusions, to contextualize the results, and to specify accuracy, including estimated error and methodological criticism or flaws.

Slander and libel considerations


Reporting the truth is never libel, which makes accuracy and attribution very important.
Private persons have privacy rights that must be balanced against the public interest in reporting information about them. Public figures have fewer privacy rights.
Publishers vigorously defend libel lawsuits filed against their reporters

Harm limitation principle

During the normal course of an assignment a reporter might go about gathering facts and details, conducting interviews, doing research, background checks, taking photos, video taping, recording sound. Should he or she report everything learned? If so, how should this be done? The principle of limitation of harms means that some weight needs to be given to the negative consequences of full disclosure, creating a practical and ethical dilemma. The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics offers the following advice, which is representative of the practical ideals of most professional journalists. Quoting directly:
Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy.
Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
Balance a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed.

Presentation


Ethical standards should not be confused with common standards of quality of presentation, including:
Correctly spoken or written language (often in a widely spoken and formal dialect, such as Standard English)
Clarity
Brevity (or depth, depending on the niche of the publisher)

Self-regulation

In addition to codes of ethics, many news organizations maintain an in-house Ombudsman whose role is, in part, to keep news organizations honest and accountable to the public. The ombudsman is intended to mediate in conflicts stemming from internal and or external pressures, and to maintain accountability to the public for news reported. Also, to foster self-criticism and to encourage adherence to both codified and un-codified ethics and standards.
An alternative is a news council, an industry-wide self-regulation body, such as the Press Complaints Commission, set up by UK newspapers and magazines. Such a body is capable perhaps of applying fairly consistent standards, and of dealing with a higher volume of complaints, but may not escape criticisms of being toothless.

Ethics and standards in practice

As with other ethical codes, there is perennial concern that the standards of journalism are being eroded. One of the most controversial issues in modern reporting is media bias, especially on political issues, but also with regard to cultural and other issues. Sensationalism is also a common complaint. Minor factual errors are also extremely common, as almost anyone who is familiar with the subject of a particular report will quickly realize.
There are also some wider concerns, as the media continue to change, for example that the brevity of news reports and use of soundbites has reduced fidelity to the truth, and may contribute to a lack of needed context for public understanding. From outside the profession, the rise of news management contributes to the real possibility that news media may be deliberately manipulated. Selective reporting (spiking, double standards) are very commonly alleged against newspapers, and by their nature are forms of bias not easy to establish, or guard against.
This section does not address specifics of such matters, but issues of practical compliance, as well as differences between professional journalists on principles.

Standards and reputation

Among the leading news organizations that voluntarily adopt and attempt to uphold the common standards of journalism ethics described herein, adherence and general quality varies considerably. The professionalism, reliability and public accountability of a news organization are three of its most valuable assets. An organization earns and maintains a strong reputation, in part, through a consistent implementation of ethical standards, which influence its position with the public and within the industry.
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